PHOENIX — Some guys have it and some guys don’t. How else to explain Russell Wilson’s uncanny success?
By all rights, Wilson shouldn’t be here. Not playing quarterback in the NFL at 5-11. And not in Phoenix this week with the Seattle Seahawks playing in Super Bowl XLIX after throwing four interceptions against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
But here he is, back in the big game and forcing us to appreciate what the NFL couldn’t measure when he came out of Wisconsin three years ago: his big heart, his unmatchable mental toughness and the laser focus he has when he needs it most. The “it” factor.
“There’s no question that Russell has [that],” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Monday during his press conference at the Arizona Grand hotel in Phoenix. “He has tremendous presence and awareness and habits and character and smarts — and athleticism to go with that.
“I’m not sure what that “it” thing is and I think people have different opinions of what it is. He’s showing you the make-up of a player that has that. He’s a tremendous study for anybody and a kid that has tremendous ability, tremendous potential, great competitive spirit and the results to back that up.”
While new Bears general manager Ryan Pace and new head coach John Fox appear prepared to reinvent Jay Cutler into a winning quarterback, their ultimate success could hinge on their ability to find a quarterback with the intangibles that Cutler doesn’t have — natural leadership; the ability to make his teammates better; the ability to focus when he needs it most; the knack for improving a team by the sheer will of their personality and work ethic. The “it” factor.
That’s what Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider saw in Wilson when they drafted him in the third round in 2012. Knew it all the time, in fact, the way Carroll explained it Monday. And the way Carroll quickly leapfrogged Wilson over $20-million free-agent signee Matt Flynn in the preseason in 2012, it’s pretty clear he knew what he had.
“Honestly, John Schneider had a feel for Russell early on and had a sense that maybe he was really, really special — and he wasn’t wrong,” Carroll said. “From that point when we started to really study him, we just kind of improved upon that evaluation. There was really nothing — except for how tall he was — that would make us think anything other than that. [And] we found it easy to overlook that because he was so special.”
How special? “I’ve known Russell since he was 13,” said Fox analyst Howie Long. “I coached against him in high school. My boys played against him in high school. He was a guy who played like he was 30 when he was 13. The things he does in terms of practice and preparation, attention to detail, maturity and leadership, those are all elements he had at 13-14 years old.
“If Russell weren’t a football player, Russell could be a CEO of a company down the road. Or Russell if he wanted to go into politics could be someone you could see as the president of the United States. He’s that kind of guy.”
Wilson is an athlete who has made a habit of confounding people. “He kind of ate us up in college,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty who was at Rutgers, when Wilson was at N.C. State. “To me the amazing part is to see what we saw in college, for him to be able to still do it at a high level in the NFL. Having the ability when a play breaks down, to make three guys miss and then find a wide-open guy. Usually when you do that in college, the first thing they tell you when you get to the NFL that everybody is bigger, stronger, faster — you won’t be able to do that. And he still is able to do that.”
Wilson has the work ethic of a player who always was deemed too small to play quarterback. “Nobody works harder than him,” Seahawks center Max Unger said. “When he got here … I didn’t know how long he was going to last putting the time in that he was putting in. We’re talking 12-hour days during OTAs when we were done at noon and he’d be there until 9 at night. And it lasted. He’s still doing it and it’s pretty amazing.”
But there’s a lot more to it than that. A lot of undersized prospects work harder than everybody else. But Wilson has a mental toughness and an ability to focus that’s difficult to measure.
“I think the mental aspect’s huge — just being locked in all the time and being able to motivate other guys,” Wilson said. “My goal is to make the other 10 guys better on the field. So through the ups and downs, you stay mentally focused, and you keep fighting for one another — and that’s what we were able to do those last three minutes [against the Packers].”
It’s no surprise that things bounce his way. Wilson had no control over Brandon Bostick botching the onside kick; or Morgan Burnett immediately downing an interception instead of going for the kill. If either of those things don’t go his way, he’s not here this week. But they did, and he is. There’s a lot to be said for a “cannon for an arm.” Sometimes you’re better off for the guy who always finds himself at the right place at the right time.